January 08, 1998
TAMICA JONES AND KATRINA WIGGS, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS/ CROSS-APPELLANTS,
LASHARRA D. BENNETT, WILLIAM R. HOOVER, CITICORP ACCEPTANCE CO., CHRISTOPHER P. FLYNN AND ENERGY SOLUTIONS, INC., HYUNDAI, INC., HYUNDAI MOTOR AMERICA, CIRCLE CHEVROLET CO., INC., SUCCESSOR TO EATONTOWN HYUNDAI, INC., JOHN DOE 1-10 AND ABC CORPORATION 1-10, DEFENDANTS. LASHARRA D. BENNETT, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT/ CROSS-APPELLANT.
WILLIAM R. HOOVER, ENERGY SOLUTIONS, INC., CITICORP ACCEPTANCE CO., CIRCLE CHEVROLET CO., INC., SUCCESSOR TO EATONTOWN HYUNDAI, INC., JOHN DOE 1-10 AND ABC CORPORATION 1-10 (FICTITIOUS INDIVIDUALS AND CORPORATE ENTITIES) JOINTLY AND/OR INDIVIDUALLY, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS. PAUL BROWN, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT/ CROSS-APPELLANT,
LASHARRA D. BENNETT, ENERGY SOLUTIONS, INC., WILLIAM HOOVER, CIRCLE CHEVROLET COMPANY, INC., SUCCESSOR TO EATONTOWN HYUNDAI, INC., JOHN DOE 1-10 AND ABC CORPORATION 1-10 (FICTITIOUS INDIVIDUALS AND CORPORATE ENTITIES), JOINTLY AND/OR INDIVIDUALLY, DEFENDANTS. CHRISTOPHER P. FLYNN, PLAINTIFF,
WILLIAM R. HOOVER, CITICORP ACCEPTANCE COMPANY AND LASHARRA D. BENNETT, DEFENDANTS. WILLIAM R. HOOVER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT/ CROSS-RESPONDENT,
LASHARRA D. BENNETT, CHRISTOPHER FLYNN, HYUNDAI, INC., CIRCLE CHEVROLET CO., SUCCESSOR TO EATONTOWN HYUNDAI, INC., JOHN DOE 1-10 AND ABC CORPORATION 1-10 (FICTITIOUS INDIVIDUALS AND CORPORATE ENTITIES), DEFENDANTS. TAMIKA HOBBS, AN INFANT BY RENEE HOBBS AND RENEE HOBBS, INDIVIDUALLY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT/ CROSS-APPELLANT,
LASHARRA D. BENNETT, WILLIAM R. HOOVER, CITICORP ACCEPTANCE CO., CHRISTOPHER P. FLYNN, ENERGY SOLUTIONS, INC., HYUNDAI, INC, HYUNDAI MOTOR AMERICA, INC., CIRCLE CHEVROLET CO., INC., SUCCESSOR TO EATONTOWN HYUNDAI, INC., DEFENDANTS.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County.
Before Judges Long, Stern and Kleiner.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stern, J.A.D.
Submitted November 18, 1997 -
This appeal and the cross-appeals are from judgments for plaintiffs (including Lasharra D. Bennett ("Bennett")) following a multiple vehicle accident that occurred on the Garden State Parkway ("Parkway") at approximately 1:15 a.m. on November 10, 1990. Defendant William R. Hoover ("Hoover" or "defendant") was operating a 1988 Ford Ranger leased by defendant Energy Solutions, Inc. ("Solutions") when it struck a 1990 Hyundai automobile owned and operated by Bennett after the Bennett vehicle broke down on the local lanes of the Parkway. Hoover's vehicle then crossed over the median into the express lane where it collided with a second vehicle operated by Christopher P. Flynn ("Flynn"). Bennett and her passengers, Tamika Hobbs ("Hobbs"), Katrina Wiggs ("Wiggs"), Tamica Jones ("Jones") and Paul Brown ("Brown"), filed separate actions for the injuries caused by the accident. Flynn also brought an action. *fn1
The complaints were consolidated for trial on the issue of liability. Damages were stipulated at $560,000 because Hoover had filed for bankruptcy protection and the automatic bankruptcy stay was released to the extent Solutions' carrier provided $500,000 liability insurance coverage for him as an additional insured. In a separate declaratory judgment action, Providence Washington Insurance Co., the carrier for the automobile's lessor, was ordered to provide an additional $30,000. Bennett's carrier also provided $30,000 of coverage. The plaintiffs stipulated to a percentage division of the proceeds.
After the trial Judge directed a verdict of liability against Hoover and ruled that the passengers' comparative negligence was not to be an issue for its consideration, the jury unanimously found no negligence on the part of Bennett. Judgment was entered against defendant in favor of all plaintiffs including Bennett. Prejudgment interest was denied as was a motion for a new trial. *fn2
Bennett was the owner and operator of an automobile that "broke down" or "slow[ed] down rapidly" and "shut off" unexpectedly and "coasted" to "a complete stop" in the center lane of the three "local lanes" of the Parkway. Shortly after Bennett's vehicle came to a stop, it was struck in the rear by a pick-up truck driven by Hoover which had been leased by his employer, Solutions. Plaintiffs Jones, Wiggs, Brown and Hobbs were passengers in Bennett's vehicle. After striking the Bennett vehicle from behind, Hoover's truck careened to the left, crossed a grass median, entered the parallel southbound "express lanes" of the Parkway, and struck a vehicle being driven by Flynn. Hoover could not recall the accident nor the events that led up to the accident due to the amnesia he sustained from his injuries as a result of the accident.
Plaintiffs in the Bennett vehicle recalled the accident and the events leading up to it in varying details. They decided to go to the Amboy Cinemas to watch the last showing of "Child's Play II" on the evening of November 9, 1990. According to the Asbury Park Press movie table introduced into evidence, the movie's last showing for that evening was scheduled to start at 12:30 a.m. When they arrived, plaintiffs were turned away because "the tickets were sold out." Hobbs utilized the theater's restroom for a few minutes while the others waited. The group then went to a restaurant next door, but it was closed. In total, they "remained at the scene" or in the area of the theater for fifteen to twenty minutes. They then decided to "go back home." As she was driving south on the Parkway, Bennett testified that she heard a "grinding sound coming from the front of [her] car." Upon hearing the noise, she moved from the left lane to the center lane in an effort to eventually get to the right shoulder. However, because traffic in the right lane was heavy, Bennett remained in the center lane when the vehicle came to a complete stop. Bennett testified that she "noticed that the car was having some difficulty. So, immediately I put the flashers on so that I could get all the way over to ... the shoulder." Other passengers corroborated that the flashers or hazard lights were turned on.
Brown estimated that about "five seconds" passed between the time the Bennett vehicle came to a complete stop and when it was hit from behind by the Hoover vehicle. Hobbs estimated the time between the stop and accident "wasn't even a minute." New Jersey State Trooper Richard Hogan was dispatched to the scene at 1:15 a.m. He indicated that the weather was "clear," traffic was "light," and that this particular area where this accident occurred was "dark" due to an absence of highway lights. Hogan further testified that he found Bennett's vehicle disabled in the southbound left local lane and found the Hoover vehicle in the left express lane adjacent to Flynn's vehicle which was positioned "against the guardrail." He also said that none of the vehicles appeared to have been moved before he arrived.
Trooper Hogan's investigation of the accident scene, which included observations of the debris in the roadway, skid marks and statements of the parties, led him to conclude that Bennett's vehicle was stopped when it was hit by Hoover's vehicle. Hoover was unable to explain what had happened due to his injuries. Trooper Hogan measured 105 feet of skid marks on the road leading from where Bennett's vehicle was initially struck to where he observed it. He observed no skid marks prior to the point of impact. He also identified an additional 44 feet of skid marks across the grassy median to the point of Hoover's collision with the Flynn vehicle.
Nicholas Bellizzi, a professional engineer, testified for plaintiffs as a motor vehicle accident reconstruction expert. Bellizzi calculated Hoover's speed to be approximately 87.46 miles per hour.
After all the evidence was presented, the trial Judge took the issue of the passengers' comparative negligence from the jury and found that Hoover was negligent as a matter of law. The Judge instructed the jury:
"that there is at least some negligence and proximate causation attributable to Mr. Hoover. That under the facts in the case, ...
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